She was excited as we set off in a light snow to find a suitable copse of saplings from which to make a staff. As we went, I tried one last time to dissuade her from her mad intent to learn weapons, to tell her of how many times my father had bruised or even broken my body. I told her of how the two fingers of my right hand had been broken and showed her, not for the first time, how twisted they were. None of this had any effect on her enthusiasm.
I measured her against a potential staff, having her hold her arm above her head to show her reach. Then I made her cut the sapling herself, using my knife. She made fair work of it, demonstrating it was not her first time with a blade. Once the bough was free from the ground and she had whittled off its branches and finished both ends, we compared her fresh, unworked staff to my own. I showed her the work she would still need to apply to the weapon before it was properly ready to be handled and she nodded, interested and eager.
Then I held out my hand and told her to take it. “Squeeze,” I said.
She did, understanding it was a test. Her hands were not small and weak; she had washed and scrubbed and worked with her hands most of her life and there was strength there. However, when I began to close my own hand, it was not long before she cried out to make me stop.
I remembered how my father had done this to me.
“This is the grip you must have,” I said. “Otherwise, an opponent will knock the weapon out of your hand and kill you.” This was, essentially, how my father had made me fear. “Until your grip is greatly improved, there is no point to our pretending to fight with one another – and no point in teaching you to swing at me. You have no control, no skill; if you want to learn to fight with a weapon, you must first strengthen yourself.”
Ruchel nodded. “How do I do that?”
“I will show you. First, hold the weapon in your hands like this.” I demonstrated. “Try to copy me exactly.” She did her bese but it was necessary to point out subtle differences. “I hold my fingers just so for reasons you will see; the distance between my hands matches the width of my shoulders; your shoulders are narrower and so your grip must be narrower too – even though your staff is nearly as long as mine. Do not worry. As we move on, you’ll learn that the whole length of the staff is within your reach. Now, watch me.”
I turned my back on her. “This is the first move,” I said, over my shoulder. “It is the first of many, but you try to master each one – so we will learn them one at a time. Then you will learn to make them in sequence. This will be an exercise you do every day.”
“I have never seen you do it,” she countered.
I turned and scowled. “I am trained. And I am not planning to fight anyone. If I were, I would begin practicing. It would only take me a few days to restore my balance again.”
“Let me see,” she begged. “I would love to see you exercise.”
I was very tempted; it would have been an opportunity to show off and I would have enjoyed impressing her. But I remembered my father would not do the same for me when I had asked him as a boy. I understood why. “I do not want your mind filled with doubts or expectations – both of which you’ll have if you watch me move through the exercise. You will either think it is easy when it is not or you’ll think it’s impossible – neither of which will help your training. So let’s do the moves one at a time.”
She sighed. “All right. If you say so.”
“Then put your feet here and here. Good. Turn your right foot a little further away from your body. That’s good.” I turned away again, lifting my staff over my head and showing her where my hands were. “Do you see?”
“Good. I want you to thrust the staff to the left, keeping the staff level and extending to the edge of your reach without losing your balance or lifting your feet. Like this.”
I made the thrust and then I looked at her. “Now you.”
She looked uncertain but tried. The staff was heavy for her and naturally it lifted it off her right foot when she pulled the thrust to a stop. “Do you see?” I asked.
She returned to her stance and tried again, making the same mistake.
“Once you begin to move the staff, it has momentum,” I told her. “You must learn when to halt its momentum until the staff no longer pulls you off balance. Again.”
Ruchel tried again, more cautiously. “That is not hard enough,” I said.
“If I thrust harder then I’m pulled with it,” she argued.
“That is true – but if you don’t thrust it hard, it will have little effect. Now, again, as hard as you can – but before the staff reaches the end of its path, you must make it stop first.”
“How? I don’t even have time to think about it!”
“You will not do it with thinking! You must feel the staff in your hand, you must feel the moment to pull the staff’s movement and you must feel your own balance.”
“Quiet. Do not speak. Lift the staff and repeat the movement.” I corrected her hands and her feet again. “You will only learn how to do this by doing it many times. Now . . . again.”
She did it again and lifted her feet.
Together we worked on this one move long enough for her to break into a sweat and grow breathless. I told her to stop. I could see she was discouraged. “Grip my hand again.”
With a breath, she did. She could not meaningfully squeeze my hand at all. “I can’t,” she said, despaired.
“Have you quit?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
“Have you failed?” Before she could answer, I interrupted. “Can you see? You do not have the muscles to even thrust the staff for a short time. You should not expect yourself to perform the move properly without having first strengthened your body. Let us go on to the next move. Can you grip the staff?”
She did it arrogantly to show me. “There. Now move the staff to the end of your thrust. Let us begin there.” She eased the staff into the thrusted position. “Good,” I told her. “Now I want you to lift your right foot and step into the thrust, keeping your staff level and bringing the right end around in a circle. Watch me.”
We kept at this until the newfallen snow was packed hard on the ground around us, until our feet were ice cold and until she had dropped her staff a hundred times. “That’s enough,” I said, drawing her to me and giving her a hug. “That’s a good first day. Let’s begin again tomorrow.”